Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder

a photo of a young asian man studying his notes while lying in bed

Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder

Do you ever feel like your study habits simply aren’t cutting it? Do you wonder what you could be doing to perform better in class and on exams? Many students realize that their high school study habits aren’t very effective in college. This is understandable, as college is quite different from high school. The professors are less personally involved, classes are bigger, exams are worth more, reading is more intense, and classes are much more rigorous. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you; it just means you need to learn some more effective study skills. Fortunately, there are many active, effective study strategies that are shown to be effective in college classes.

This handout offers several tips on effective studying. Implementing these tips into your regular study routine will help you to efficiently and effectively learn course material. Experiment with them and find some that work for you.

Reading is not studying

Simply reading and re-reading texts or notes is not actively engaging in the material. It is simply re-reading your notes. Only ‘doing’ the readings for class is not studying. It is simply doing the reading for class. Re-reading leads to quick forgetting.

Think of reading as an important part of pre-studying, but learning information requires actively engaging in the material (Edwards, 2014). Active engagement is the process of constructing meaning from text that involves making connections to lectures, forming examples, and regulating your own learning (Davis, 2007). Active studying does not mean highlighting or underlining text, re-reading, or rote memorization. Though these activities may help to keep you engaged in the task, they are not considered active studying techniques and are weakly related to improved learning (Mackenzie, 1994).

  • Create a study guide by topic. Formulate questions and problems and write complete answers. Create your own quiz.
  • Become a teacher. Say the information aloud in your own words as if you are the instructor and teaching the concepts to a class.
  • Derive examples that relate to your own experiences.
  • Create concept maps or diagrams that explain the material.
  • Develop symbols that represent concepts.
  • For non-technical classes (e.g., English, History, Psychology), figure out the big ideas so you can explain, contrast, and re-evaluate them.
  • For technical classes, work the problems and explain the steps and why they work.
  • Study in terms of question, evidence, and conclusion: What is the question posed by the instructor/author? What is the evidence that they present? What is the conclusion?

Organization and planning will help you to actively study for your courses. When studying for a test, organize your materials first and then begin your active reviewing by topic (Newport, 2007). Often professors provide subtopics on the syllabi. Use them as a guide to help organize your materials. For example, gather all of the materials for one topic (e.g., PowerPoint notes, text book notes, articles, homework, etc.) and put them together in a pile. Label each pile with the topic and study by topics.

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These conditions can distract from your lessons. Plus, students are likely to have to do more without a teacher or parent looking over their shoulders. They will have to manage their time and study more on their own. Yet many students never learned those skills. To them, Sana says, it may be like telling students to learn to swim by “just swimming.”

For more than 100 years, psychologists have done research on which study habits work best. Some tips help for almost every subject. For example, don’t just cram! And test yourself, instead of just rereading the material. Other tactics work best for certain types of classes. This includes things like using graphs or mixing up what you study. Here are 10 tips to tweak your study habits.

1. Space out your studying

Nate Kornell “definitely did cram” before big tests when he was a student. He’s a psychologist at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. He still thinks it’s a good idea to study the day before a big test. But research shows it’s a bad idea to cram all your studying into that day. Instead, space out those study sessions.

a kid sitting at a table studying and looking really stressed out

Cramming before a big test can leave you exhausted. But you’ll learn and remember material better if you space your study sessions over the course of several days. South_agency/E+/Getty Images Plus

In one 2009 experiment, college students studied vocabulary words with flash cards. Some students studied all the words in spaced-apart sessions throughout four days. Others studied smaller batches of the words in crammed, or massed, sessions, each over a single day. Both groups spent the same amount of time overall. But testing showed that the first group learned the words better.

Kornell compares our memory to water in a bucket that has a small leak. Try to refill the bucket while it’s still full, and you can’t add much more water. Allow time between study sessions, and some of the material may drip out of your memory. But then you’ll be able to relearn it and learn more in your next study session. And you’ll remember it better, next time, he notes.

2. Practice, practice, practice!

“If you want to be able to remember information, the best thing you can do is practice,” says Katherine Rawson. She’s a psychologist at Kent State University in Ohio. In one 2013 study, students took practice tests over several weeks. On the final test, they scored more than a full letter grade better, on average, than did students who studied the way they normally had.

In a study done a few years earlier, college students read material and then took recall tests. Some took just one test. Others took several tests with short breaks of several minutes in between. The second group recalled the material better a week later.

3. Don’t just reread books and notes

As a teen, Cynthia Nebel studied by reading her textbooks, worksheets and notebooks. “Over and over and over again,” recalls this psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Now, she adds, “we know that’s one of the most common bad study skills that students have.”

In one 2009 study, some college students read a text twice. Others read a text just once. Both groups took a test right after the reading. Test results differed little between these groups, Aimee Callender and Mark McDaniel found. She is now at Wheaton College in Illinois. He works at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Too often, when students reread material, it’s superficial, says McDaniel, who also co-wrote the 2014 book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Rereading is like looking at the answer to a puzzle, rather than doing it yourself, he says. It looks like it makes sense. But until you try it yourself, you don’t really know if you understand it.

One of McDaniel’s coauthors of Make it Stick is Henry Roediger. He, too, works at Washington University. In one 2010 study, Roediger and two other colleagues compared test results of students who reread material to two other groups. One group wrote questions about the material. The other group answered questions from someone else. Those who answered the questions did best. Those who just reread the material did worst.

4. Test yourself

That 2010 study backs up one of Nebel’s preferred study habits. Before big tests, her mom quizzed her on the material. “Now I know that was retrieval practice,” she says. “It’s one of the best ways you can study.” As Nebel got older, she quizzed herself. For example, she might cover up the definitions in her notebook. Then she tried to recall what each term meant.

a girl explaining something to her mom

Study Methods

Scientists have been investigating information retention and the studying process for decades. The best way to find the most effective study method for you is to test various tips, such as the ones listed below.

7. Thwart the “Curve of Forgetting”

Scientists started exploring the “curve of forgetting” in 1885, but the concept remains useful to today’s study habits. The gist of the “curve of forgetting” is this: The first time you hear a lecture or study something new, you retain up to 80% of what you’ve just learned — if you review the material within 24 hours. Fortunately, this effect is cumulative; so after a week, you may retain 100% of the same information after only five minutes of review. Generally, psychologists agree this type of interval studying — as opposed to “cramming” — is best, and that students should study closer to the day they learned the material than the day of the test.

8. Use Active Recall

This controversial method of studying was a hot topic in 2009, when a psychology professor published an article advising students against reading and rereading textbooks — which, he argued, merely lead students to thinking they know the material better than they do since it is right in front of them. Conversely, he suggested students use active recall: closing the book and reciting everything they can remember up to that point to practice long-term memorization.

9. Use the Leitner System

Named for its originator, German scientist Sebastian Leitner, the study method forces students to learn, through repetition, the material they know least well. The system involves moving cards with correctly answered questions further down a line of boxes and moving incorrectly answered cards back to the first box. Thus, the cards in the first box are studied most frequently and the interval becomes greater as the student proceeds down the line, forcing her to review again and again the information she doesn’t know.

10. Take the Practice Tests

As you would with the ACT, SAT, or GMAT, take advantage of professors and instructors who make old exams available as practice tests. You can get a sense of the instructor’s testing style and a become familiar with how the information might be presented on the real test day. A 2011 study finds students who tested themselves with a practice test after learning the material retained 50% more of the information a week later than their peers who did not take a practice test.

11. Make Connections

Experts argue that the difference between “slow learners” and “quick studiers” is the way they study; for example, instead of memorizing, “quick learners” make connections between ideas. Known as contextual learning, this process requires students to customize their own methods of learning, thus making connections that inspire all of the information to fall into place and make sense for them individually. Some students find that recording all information visually in one place (such as on a sheet of paper or chalkboard) can help to paint a fuller picture and aid their connections within the learning process.

12. Try the Feynman Notebook Method

Physicist Robert Feynman created this organization-based learning method by writing on the title page of an empty notebook, notebook of things I don’t know about. From there, he developed a technique of deconstruction and reconstruction of ideas, in an effort to understand even the most complicated of concepts. To use this method and learn how to study effectively, first identify what you want to learn. Then, try explaining it as you would to a five-year-old. The Feynman method is ideal for using analogies to further illustrate your concept (e.g., a bonsai tree is just like a big tree, but smaller).

13. Take on the Role of Teacher

What Not to Do When Studying

15. Don’t Overlearn

Once you’ve been able to cycle through your flashcards without making a single mistake, you may feel a sense of satisfaction and call it a day, or you may feel a charge of adrenaline and be tempted to continue studying. When you come to this fork in the road, keep in mind that a sharp onset of diminishing returns during “overlearning.” With a limited amount of time to study each topic, you’re better served moving on to something else.

16. Stop Multitasking

Multitasking is a myth. You may think you’re killing two birds with one stone by texting while studying, for example, but you’re actually forming poor study habits. According to researchers, so-called “multitasking” extends your study time and ultimately may damage your grades.

17. Forget About “Learning Styles”

Researchers and learning experts debate the concept of learning styles, some even go so far as to say they don’t exist. Our conclusion is this: Despite the amount of work on the subject, scientists have found “virtually no evidence” to support the concept of learning styles, though they left the possibility open to further investigation in years to come. We recommend you don’t go out of your way to try to make your material fit a specific style because it may not be worth the time or effort.

Bonus Tip: Don’t Focus on One Subject for Too Long

If you’ve never felt “burned out” from repeatedly studying pages of history notes, scrutinizing chemistry formulas, or practicing music scales, consider yourself lucky. But know that the threat is real. It’s best to vary your material rather than zeroing in persistently on one area. (It is acceptable to join related or similar subject areas together; for example, instead of only memorizing vocabulary, mix in reading as well. If doing math, tackle several concepts together instead of just one.)